Nov. 1 2006 12:00 AM
Business is great. You launched your company a few years ago with a dream and a single riding mower. You knew the demand would be there and it was. Since then, you’ve grown from one employee (yourself) to fifteen full and part-timers, all eager to work and grow with the company.

But then the unthinkable happens. You get a call from one of your supervisors telling you to meet him at the hospital. One of your employees has been injured. Your heart races as you think, “What happened?” and your mind scrolls through the list of possibilities: an amputation? An eye injury? A rollover?

You find yourself breathing a partial sigh of relief when your supervisor assures you that it wasn’t that bad. It was “only” a cut to the cheek. A mower kicked up a rock and hit another employee in the face. He’ll be fine but will need stitches.

As you drive to the hospital, you start asking yourself the inevitable questions, “Why was another employee so close to the mower?” “What if the rock hit his eye? Was he even wearing eye protection?” “Why didn’t they pick up rocks in the area before they started mowing the lawn?” and finally, “Is there anything I could have done to prevent this?” In many situations, the answer is yes. Injury prevention is the most serious aspect of the lawn care professional’s job. Effective safety education strategies not only help protect employees and the public from serious accidents, they can also mean the difference between a company that thrives and one that self-destructs.

The impact of injury
We all know that injury is no stranger to the lawn care industry. It’s no surprise that OSHA identified landscape and horticultural services as one of seven industries targeted for increased surveillance and outreach activities. One result of this outreach is a formal alliance between OSHA and the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET). This alliance is designed to provide green industry businesses and their employees with information and guidance to help prevent accidents and injuries.

The reasons for this extra attention are numerous. Injury impacts the green industry on many levels, from the success of a small business right on up to the overall reputation of the field as a whole. Obviously, the most important reason is safety. “The biggest priority is making sure your employees are safe,” says Mike Themanson, safety manager for The Acres Group in Wauconda, Illinois. “The last thing you want to do is meet someone in the ER because of an accident that could have been prevented.”

Public safety is equally important as employee safety. “Public safety is our biggest issue,” says Jim Potts, operations manager for Caretaker Incorporated in Gilbert, Arizona. “We do a lot of retirement communities. People are active there during the day. It’s critical for our employees to be aware of people around them.”

While protecting human safety is priority one, protecting your business is another reason for implementing sound injury prevention strategies. Fines, insurance costs, medical bills, and lost work days all have the potential to bring a successful business down. “Safety will really make or break a company,” says Potts. “It doesn’t take a lot of accidents to put someone out of business.”

As Themanson points out, medical bills are usually just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the cost of an injury. Loss of productivity is often much more expensive. “If you have a healthy workforce, you can avoid employee downtime and keep the employee who is best trained for the job working on that job. This gets the job done better and faster.”

“Indirect expenses are usually the biggest factor in the cost of an injury,” continues Themanson. “For example, let’s take a back injury that costs about $2,000 in medical bills. When you factor in all of the associated costs, like overtime for other employees, lost time for the supervisor, additional training for temporary employees, equipment downtime, and other costs, you actually end up spending four times that initial amount.”

Company culture: Safety is Priority One
Let’s face it, when employees are out in the field, you can’t control their every action. But there are many things you can do to increase the odds that they will perform the job safely on their own. Having a company-wide commitment to safety is one of them. “Employees and customers are the greatest assets of a company,” says Ruthanne Stucky, marketing director for the Grasshopper Company in Moundridge, Kansas. “A company-wide commitment to mower safety honors those assets by reinforcing the importance of respecting the power of the equipment used.”

This commitment to safety must permeate every aspect of operations, from hiring decisions to equipment purchases, to daily, weekly, and annual training programs. “Companies that have a structure in place for regular safety training, documenting employees trained, and emphasizing safe practices are laying the groundwork for attention to detail in every aspect of their work,” says Stucky.

Managers with a good safety record know that it isn’t just about training. It’s also about attitude. No matter how well trained they are, employees may try to cut corners when they sense that an owner places a higher value on speed and short-term productivity than on safety.

Owners and managers need to make it clear by their own actions that safety always trumps speed, that they are not interested in increased productivity if it means increased risk. They need to make it obvious that they have zero tolerance for employees who doctor equipment to override safety features in the name of a faster job. They also need to emphasize a team approach to safety. Employees who are consistently reminded to watch out for the safety of their co-workers will be more likely to call attention to unsafe practices without worrying about being labeled a whistle-blower.

A company’s commitment to safety should also be clear when it comes to purchasing new mowers and deciding which mowers to use for a particular job. “Be real about safety,” says Tim Cromley, marketing manager for Walker Mowers in Fort Collins, Colorado. “Look at safety equipment with a critical eye and think realistically about what it can protect you from.” Cromley points out that no safety equipment can help if you are using a mower that isn’t well-suited for steep hill work or other situations that it is not designed for.

Stucky agrees that safety features have limits. “Roll-over protective structures (ROPS) are standard equipment on many mowers today. Mower operators should not allow ROPS to provide a false sense of security in hazardous areas and should avoid any questionable conditions. There is no substitute for good judgment on the part of the equipment operator.”

A company culture that emphasizes safety does more than prevent accidents. It also helps boost employee morale and enhance overall public relations. “When we emphasize safety, employees know we’re looking out for them,” says Themanson.

Potts agrees. “We have an impeccable safety record. This helps our company image, especially among potential employees and also among clients. We can use this as part of our marketing program.”

Covering the basics
Fortunately, you are not on your own when it comes to safety education. There are numerous resources available to help, many of them free or low cost. The STARS safety program developed by PLANET assists green industry companies in their efforts to lower their total costs of risk by reducing hazards and injuries. PLANET members can take advantage of the free Safety Program for Green Industry Companies on CD as a guideline.

Photo courtesy: Gravely

Mowing manufacturers offer their own resources. Last fall, the National Safety Council (NSC), in partnership with Toro and Exmark, introduced a new training program to instruct commercial lawn care equipment operators on the safe operation of zero-radius turn (ZRT) mowers. Designed for field or classroom use, the program includes laminated “tailgate” training flipcharts (in English and Spanish), and an instructional DVD to guide trainers, plus participant handouts. Each page uses large photos and text to illustrate proper ZRT operation, and explain the risks of operating the mowers improperly.

Strategies for compliance
Some successful strategies for instilling a commitment to safety throughout your company are:

Identify a safety czar Putting someone in charge of the safety program helps to ensure that it gets implemented. In a large company, this might mean hiring a safety manager like Themanson. “This is a brand new role for our company,” he says. “The company has always had a comprehensive safety education program, but they wanted someone with a background in occupational safety to serve as a sounding board and make sure they were doing things correctly.”

Smaller companies can also identify someone to address safety training and concerns as part of their other duties. “Even if you have three employees, one person has to be responsible for that role,” says Potts.

Provide constant training opportunities Both Themanson and Potts stress the importance of daily, weekly, and annual opportunities for safety education. “We hold weekly tailgate talks and go over a hot topic,” says Themanson. “We might discuss an incident from the previous week, or cover seasonal issues.”

“A short session each week is one way to let employees understand the value a company places on safe mowing practices,” says Stucky. “Ongoing training is required, due to employee turnover and conversely, to the tendency for people to become careless when they become familiar with a situation.”

“Once a year we also have a three-day comprehensive safety training program for all staff, including sales staff,” adds Themanson. Involving all staff helps to make sure that everyone is on board and shares responsibility for safety.

Be consistent “Consistency is a very important aspect of any safety program,” says Potts. Regularly identifying problems and responding to them with the same message helps people remember correct safety procedures. “This aids in making safety routine,” says Potts. “It makes it second nature. Employees think safety and act safely.”

Keep it fresh Addressing safety concerns as they arise helps to ensure that they will be handled during a “teachable moment,” when employees are most likely to learn from them. “Our rule here is, if you see people doing things improperly, address it immediately, on the spot,” says Themanson. “Describe what you see and work through it right away while it’s fresh and you can remember the details. Then use that incident as a source of information for next week’s safety talk. We try to keep things as fresh and topical as possible so it pertains to what’s going on in the field right now.”

Reach all audiences. Be aware of the needs of your employees. Do you have employees for whom English is a second language? Maybe they don’t read English as well as they speak it. In that case, make sure operator manuals and other safety materials are available in their language or take the time to have them read materials with a translator. Do you have some teen employees? Know that they might not have the same good judgment that some of your experienced employees depend on. They may also be hearing some of the information for the first time. Pay special attention to safety education with them.

Monitor Ongoing follow-up is as important as initial training. “We do unannounced spot inspections,” says Themanson. Field checks provide an opportunity to make sure all safety equipment is being properly used.

“I spoke with one contractor who actually docks pay when he sees people not using safety equipment,” says Cromley. While this approach might not be appropriate for everyone, in companies where there are frequent problems steps like this help employees recognize that an owner is very serious about injury prevention. An employee who was reprimanded last week might be very grateful this week when a rock bounces off the safety goggles he remembered to put on.

When you send employees out into the field, you put the responsibility for themselves and your company into their hands. Giving them clear and consistent safety messages will help guarantee they take that responsibility as seriously as you do.